Long, long ago, in my student days, I went to a talk by David Owen at Strathclyde University. It was around the time that the Gang of Four were breaking away from the Labour Party to form the Social Democratic Party. It was the first time I’d been to a public lecture by someone of his stature and I remember I was quite blown away by it. He may not have been the orator of Michael Foot’s standing, but it was still very powerful stuff. At around that time I also went to a rally where Shirley Williams, always one of my favourite politicians, was speaking. I had friends who were doing Politics, you see, and they made sure I went to all the right events. Anyhow, Shirley Williams was preceded by a local Councillor who introduced her with a rambling speech. When her turn came, it was immediately clear that Williams was in another league. She may not have been glamorous but she oozed charisma. I’ve no idea now what she said, but I do remember the enormous gulf between the presentation skills of this leading politician and the local councillor. There was no mistaking which of the two had made it to the top.
This memory returns to me every time one of our local councillors makes another gaffe and I try to remind myself that they’re surely doing their best and that it must be a truly thankless job being a local politician. For instance, there was the issue over the swimming pools when my two were small. An edict came out at the start of the school summer holidays: an adult could only supervise one child under 8 yrs old in the pool. So, all those families with two children would only be able to swim if both parents were there. What if the kids could swim? No matter, they still needed one to one supervision. What about single parent families? Families with three children? Families where one parent worked away? Too bad. They would just have to wait until one of the children was eight. But the solution was simple, according to the councillor concerned. “We provide a creche at the leisure centres. Parents can leave their other child in the creche.” This councillor was female. Had she ever met any children? Can you picture it, leaving your 7 yr old in the creche, open for a couple of hours in the morning, while you take the 5 yr old swimming? No, I didn’t think so. The huge outcry led to some hasty backtracking and a more sensible order was restored. Unfortunately this coloured my perception of that particular individual and when, a few years later, I had to work with her briefly in another of her council roles, she did nothing to restore my respect for her.
This time around it’s a different councillor making pronouncements without thinking first. As tax revenues have fallen, our local council, along with every other one in the land, is having to make across the board budget cuts. Education is not exempt so they’ve been looking for places to make savings which won’t have too much impact on teaching and learning. And, amongst other things, they’ve come up with the free school buses; from August, anyone living less than 3 miles from the school will have to pay, or make their own way to school. “They all have bikes!” said Councillor Berry. “They can cycle”.
I do wonder, if he hadn’t come out with that statement, if they might just have snuck this through. Telling our village to make the kids cycle was like lighting a fuse and then ducking for cover. I’d love my two to cycle to school except… Let’s make a list.
- Modern school bags. They weigh a ton. No desks or lockers like we had at school, so they have to carry their stuff round all day. It’s why none of the secondary children wear coats. And why they’ll probably all have bad backs when they’re older.
- Trumpet case, PE kit, other miscellaneous extras to be carried to school. So much fun on a bike!
- There’s nowhere to store more than half a dozen bikes safely at the school. There are over 100 children travelling from our village alone.
- The road. It’s very fast, very busy, normally full of puncture-inducing potholes, floods at certain strategic points, has no lights and only occasional pavements. I was once faced on this road with a choice between a car coming up fast behind me or a pothole in front of me. I went for the latter and lived, but punctured. Never mind! I got out my spare tube to fix it, then realised I had punctured both wheels. It was a long walk home in cycle shoes. Add in 100 children cycling up this road and stir.
So that’s cycling off the list then. And walking. The public bus couldn’t take them all and anyway it only comes once an hour.
Once the village gets hold of an issue, the whole community takes to arms. It’s the talk in the store, the post office and the school playground. A public meeting was called; it was standing room only. There was a lot of heated discussion, even though Don Ledingham said right at the outset that it was clear the road was unsafe and that a bus would have to be provided. It just wouldn’t be free for most of the village. “You’re not listening!” people were muttering, even though I thought the council representatives present were listening very carefully. They might not have agreed, but that’s not the same as not listening.
It seems a small thing to get so upset about when there are going to be big cuts elsewhere which may have much more wide reaching effects. And personally, I was far more relaxed about it all once we were told that a school bus would be provided, even though we might have to pay. The trouble is, charging for the bus will have a disproportionate impact. It would mean families with two children at the school having to find up to £20 a week extra for the bus fares – that’s a lot of money for a large chunk of our village, and will most affect the people who can least afford it. And for me, it also sends out a wrong message at a time when we should be discouraging car trips. At the moment, almost all the children in the village take the bus to school; paying for the bus will encourage car travel instead. If, let’s say, 20 families from each of the three villages concerned started driving to school, that would be another 120 car journeys each day and another 60 cars creating congestion at the school gate. Set alongside the decision not to charge for parking at East Lothian’s coastal car parks – that’s a different budget, apparently – there seems to be an environmental message gone missing.
I’m sure there’ll be plenty more discussion before this one’s done and dusted. Who’d be a local politician?
Image credit: The US National Archives